Policy & Advocacy: Local and Regional Food Systems

Good policy for local and regional food systems supports small farms, independent businesses, and infrastructure to link them. Unfortunately, current federal food and farm policy does just the oppos

fresh local sign

Good policy for local and regional food systems supports small farms, independent businesses, and infrastructure to link them. Unfortunately, current federal food and farm policy does just the opposite. It is overwhelmingly biased toward subsidizing industrial-scale farms and corporate concentration. Current policy also promotes long-distance shipping and exports, rather than local and regional marketing. This policy bias has fueled a disastrous decline in family-scale agriculture, local and regional businesses, and rural communities. It also has led to rapid concentration of control over key parts of the food system in the hands of a small number of corporations.

State and Local Policy

Policy changes can ease and facilitate specific community food security initiatives. State and local policies can have particular impact in areas including EBT use at farmers’ markets, farm to institution procurement policies, and land use legislation addressing both municipal zoning and working farmland conservation. For details on policies addressing specific aspects of local and regional food systems, see the Policy & Advocacy sections of the other topic areas. For a comprehensive list of state legislation related to farmers’ markets, farm to school, and more, see the National Council on State Legislatures’ Healthy Design Legislation Database.

There is also some policy movement at the state level on a broader, system-wide legislation. The Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act , signed into law in the spring of 2007, will create a task force to develop strategy to encourage and promote local food production. The legislation is supported by a broad coalition including health and environmental groups. Evanston, Illinois, Food Policy Council co-founder Debbie Hillman, says, “Mostly it’s economic. If you grow local, you support a local economy.”

Federal Policy

The USDA Community Food Project (CFP) Competitive Grant Program was established in 1996 to increase community food security by creating links among various parts of the food system. CFP grants have helped hundreds of innovative programs strengthen local and regional food systems around the country. Learn more about some of these at the Food Security Learning Center Community Food Projects database.

Aside from the CFP program, the primary federal policy that supports local and regional food systems at present comes from the 2008 Farm Bill.  As it tries to cover everything relating to our food system, it can be difficult to wade through let alone make policy changes.  The Farm Bill is updated about every five years, but can be ‘extended’ for longer.  In 2007, when it last came up for review, community food security activists nation-wide worked to strengthen and expand programs that would support local and regional food systems.  Below are a few highlights and successes of 2008 Farm Bill. However, there is still vast room for improvement and in 2012, when funding for the majority of the these programs ends, there will be another opportunity to strengthen the Farm Bill’s support of local and regional food systems.

2008 Farm Bill Highlights

USDA “Food Desert” Study is a term used when a community lacks access to fresh food. The 2008 FarmBill has promised funding for a 1 year study of it.

School Food. For those institutions already reciving federal funds for food programs now have the flexibility to choose regionally where their unprocessed food comes from.  

Community Food Program Grants is receiving an estimated total funding of $4,600,000 in grants aimed at fighting food insecurity through supporting and developing community-based food projects in low-income communities. The grants will range in size from $10,000-$300,000. The estimated percentage of applicants that receive funding, however, is only 28%, showing the high demand and need of this growing movement.  

Farmer’s Market Promotion Funding has been expanded. This program aims to increase farmers’ share of the agricultural system profit and increase consumer access to fresh local food. Throughout the five years, this program will receive $33million mandatory funding. No less than 10% must go towards the promotion of EBT, the electronic version of SNAP (formerly called food stamps).

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program has increased funding to $75 million in mandatory funding making it more likely that aspiring farmers will reach their goals. Grants go towards training, mentoring and providing access to land for new farmers.

Local and Regional Food Enterprise Guaranteed Loans is a new loan program out of the Business and Industry section of the bill, and 5% of the B&I’s funding must go towards this program. The loans are to ensure food distribution, storage and marketing take place within a 400mile radius. These loans are primarily for rural areas, generally smaller than 50,000 individuals, cooperatives and added-value processing centers.

To find out more information on the above programs and on the successes and perceived failures of the 2008 Farm Bill, we recommend these sites:


Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) gives voice to the “…vital grassroots efforts across the country to bring real change in policies for a more sustainable agriculture.”  Their Farm Bill guide is easy to navigate and comprehensive.


Farm Bill Programs Related to Community Food Security
Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) is a diverse group of individuals and organizations who are dedicated to building strong, just and sustainable local food systems through training, networking and advocacy.  They have created a synopsis of programs in the Farm Bill that relate to community food security (CFS).

Checklist of Farm and Food Policy Projects (FFPP)
This PDF lists, side by side, the FFPP Priorities, the House and Senate responses and where to locate it in the bill. It includes urban agriculture, Farmer’s market promotions, converting-to- organic programs, and much more.


Buying locally grown — and locally made or processed, from locally owned businesses — is one of the best forms of advocacy for a local food system. “Voting with your fork” is an increasingly popular idea — along with the recognition of the power and impact we have through the choice of where we spend our food dollars.

Local food promotion programs like the Be a Local Hero: Buy Locally Grown campaign of Community Involved in Supporting Agriculture in western Massachusetts, and FoodRoutes’ Buy Fresh Buy Local, with chapters nationwide, have proven effective for raising awareness of the reasons and benefits of buying local and regional food. In western Massachusetts, 80% of consumers recognize the Local Hero logo and of those, almost all say that it has influenced them to buy more locally grown foods.

Local food publications such as the Northeast Regional Food Guide can help these efforts by educating consumers about where and when local products are available. There are alternative certification programs that can help consumers determine if products are local. Certified Naturally Grown, for example, describes itself as a grassroots alternative to the USDA’s National Organic Program, meant primarily for small-scale, direct-market organic farmers. For more consumer education materials, the Business Alliance for Local, Living Economies has a list of “10 more reasons to shop at locally owned businesses“, and the 100-Mile Diet lists 13 Lucky Reasons to eat local.

At the community level, conducting a community food assessment is a powerful way to build education about and buy-in to the local food system. Around the country, more and more community groups are advocating their lawmakers, institutions, and corporations for policies and standards to increase access to healthy foods. Advocacy for healthy foods can be about local and regional foods as well — and health can be an effective entry point to bring local foods into the discussion. There is evidence that food is more nutritions when it has not traveled long distances, and it is certainly healthier for the local economy.

Many new alliances and organizing initiatives on behalf of local and regional food systems are forming between farmers, community food security advocates, anti-hunger groups, conservation networks, and consumer movements. Strengthened by a growing public awareness and support, this work must continue in and through the 2007 Farm Bill and into the future, to rebuild local food systems and local economies.

Updated 7/2010